Mon | Feb 24, 2020

Jamaican singer Zia Benjamin, reaps international success

Published:Sunday | May 19, 2019 | 12:12 AMYasmine Peru - Senior Gleaner Writer

Despite her accomplishments, the name Zia Benjamin may not resound with the impact that it should. But that really does not bother this songstress, who is singularly focused on doing music her way. After doing music at the dictates of others, and achieving much more in a few years than some have in a lifetime, Zia took flight and put a defined distance between her and the music, but then she inevitably heeded the call – one last time.

It may sound like a cliché when Zia says that she didn’t, choose music, music chose her, but the No Fame singer insists that this is her reality. “I remember at 17, getting a card from a junior A&R from Sony Music who told me to call him, but I threw the card away. Then when I started in the (music) business, I was so naïve that I had a couple of hard lessons, so much so that I ran from it and went into journalism. Then I met Rory (Stone Love), and that was music calling me again. But this time, I have learnt to say no to those things that don’t fit my heart,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

Zia, who grew up around music, got her first big break in 2012 when she was featured on multiplatinum, Grammy-winning artiste Sean Paul’s song Standing There. Still quite new in the business at the time, she recalls working with Sean Paul at Big Yard studios in Kingston and being so nervous that he had to sit with her in the voicing room. Zia also appeared on Major Lazer’s 2013 Free the Universe album, which scored big on the Billboard chart, peaking at number one on the Dance/ Electronic Albums chart and 34 on the Billboard 200.

Zia got her chance to shine on the song Jet Blue Jet, for which she both wrote and sang the chorus. It became one of the most popular songs on the album, garnering over 100 million views on you tube. It is said that Diplo of Major Lazer was particularly drawn to her “Billie Holiday swag”.

“It’s a good look for me, and it’s a good look for Jamaica. It’s encouraging for women to see other female artistes in these positions,” she says of the success.

In 2015, she released her first single, No Fame, which was produced by Rory from Stone Love. The story is that her jazzy vocals caught the attention of famed BBC Radio DJ David Rodigan, who tweeted that he was “truly blown away by [Zia’s] song/spoken-word gem.” And she continues to blow away music’s bigwigs. Just this week, global editorial head for Apple Music specialising in hip hop and R&B, Ebro Darden, chose her song Rudie as his Discover Weekly for Apple Music Beats 1. “We were up there on the walls in the Apple Music Headquarters in New York right between Sam Smith and Cardi B,” Zia told The Sunday Gleaner.

Born in Jamaica to a Dominican father and German mother, Zia (real name Christina Benjamin), lists her musical influences as “a cross-cultural patchwork of jazz, neo-soul, pop, and retro-dancehall.” In seeking to define it, she uses the term ‘Rum Shop Blues’. It is this sound that permeates her newest release, Mr Neverman, another Rory Stone Love production, the visuals for which had its Billboard première two weeks ago. “I knew they were doing the video, but I really didn’t expect them to do this long interview with me,” Zia disclosed. “My music, if it is successful, will take brand Jamaica to a new market. I have been getting a lot of love from BBC, MTV, Hot 97, and DJ Khaled. Seems like people are liking my songs, and the shows are starting to come,” she added.

Actually, Zia performed at the Tmrw. Tday Culture Fest in Negril a few weeks ago, and prior to that she had been in the Bahamas. But so far, there has been no call from Jamaica’s premier reggae festival, Reggae Sumfest. “Bwoy, if dem call me, I won’t be upset,” she said with a chuckle. “But I also believe in divine timing. I am not running down a buss. I expect to be here for a long time,” she said.

And speaking of “divine timing”, Zia’s connection with American-Jamaican producer Andre Chevolleau, with whom she is working, could easily fall into this bracket. “He has worked with SZA, XXXtentacion, Lil Pump and has produced some of the dopest music. I linked with him in the most roundabout way. Somebody heard No Fame and sent it to his ex-girlfriend, who sent it to him and he called me. Just like that,” she said. “I did a song for him and then, just as I am about to leave, I told him that I have an a capella, he listened to it and by the next day he had the most amazing song. They had called in live musicians and have a song that sounds like a James Bond sound-track.”

Well, with Bond being filmed in Jamaica, who knows what card will play.